“Remake” has become a dirty word in cinema. Hollywood can do what it likes to its own movies, but it’s how it treats everyone else’s that has made it notorious: money-obsessed, and as culturally sensitive as Stalin after a night on the Stolichnaya. Director David Fincher admitted as much at the start of the publicity run for his remake of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. “I know we are playing into the European, and certainly the Swedish, predisposition that this is a giant monetary land grab,” he told the fansite FincherFanatic.com. “You’re co-opting a phenomenon. Now, there are plenty of reasons to believe we can make it equally entertaining of a movie. But the resentment is already engendered, in a weird way. It’s bizarre.”
It’s unusual for a director to be so transparent about the whole painful process – and his version of Dragon Tattoo seems to be the new, culturally enlightened face of US remakes. The film, instead of being roughly uprooted and repotted on Yankee soil, takes place in a kind of ersatz Sweden. Daniel Craig keeps his English vowels, but most of the cast speak the English dialogue with Europeanised accents of various weights. That includes Rooney Mara’s Lisbeth Salander, who even slips in a “Tack!” [thanks] at one point. It’s the one blatant move from Fincher, who everywhere else makes sure the film never betrays its setting with his usual forensic zeal. He even recreated a lakeside dock in an LA studio after he was refused shooting rights by the Abba member who owned the location.
That’s the new school of remakes. Hollywood’s normal way during the noughties was more like what Salander does to her guardian with a dildo. For every The Ring (even shorn of Japanese uncanniness, the Gore Verbinski version rightly had its admirers), there were the Quarantines, the One Missed Calls, the Dinner for Schmucks. Nasty bastardisations. These were operating under the old unilateral ethos – render a foreign-language story palatable for the subtitle-phobic US audience – that occasionally produces such sizeable hits as The Birdcage (4m US domestic) or Vanilla Sky (1m). But with Hollywood’s creative gas-tank running on empty and a desperation for ideas, the remake took on the air of the easy option in the noughties. There were too many, put together with too little care.
It probably came down to economics. The critic Gary G Xu has compared the remake factory to a kind of outsourcing – pushing R&D costs on to other parties – that could be seen as part of the wider Asia-wards shift of industrial production. In the book East Asian Cinemas, Xu writes: “Outsourced are the jobs of assistant producers who are the initial script screeners, of the personnel involved in the scripting process, of supporting crew for various details during production, of the marketing team and, increasingly, of directors. Sooner or later, the unions within the Hollywood system will come to realise the outsourcing nature of remaking.”
It’s a fascinating idea. Hollywood saves money by cherrypicking stories and creative talent that have been roadtested in other markets. But was it truly cost-effective? A lot of the noughties remakes still played it cautious. Many of them, especially the J-horror smash-and-grabs, were low- to medium-budget films that, without heavy marketing muscle, made modest US box office in the -30m range. (This partly explains the shoddy quality.) Of the ones that spent higher, there were several prominent flops that failed to connect in the market for which they had been reshoed: Bangkok Dangerous (m budget/.3m US domestic), Dark Water (m budget/m) and Let Me In (m budget/.1m). Of the really big successes, you’d imagine the star power, script overhauls, beefed-up production values and marketing needed to propel them upwards would easily offset the modest initial savings made by buying in intellectual property. The Departed (2m US domestic), The Ring (9m), The Grudge (0m), Vanilla Sky, Insomnia(.3m) all cashed in. But at that level, they were beyond remake economics – they were playing the high-stakes blockbuster game.
Fincher, with a 0m budget, is at this table too. But his Dragon Tattoo, spritzed with its light fragrance of Scandinavian malaise, is clearly a step towards a new kind of remake for the era of international box office. Audiences are better travelled than they used to be and more ready to sample culture in a foreign-language. Where remakes come into being, maintaining the essence of the original work is becoming a plus point – like with the British adaptation of Wallander. The US Dragon Tattoo also follows in the footsteps of Columbia’s remake of J-horror The Grudge – which also kept its predecessors’ Japan setting. It was more elegant, though, in explaining the transition to English-speaking characters: they actually are English speakers (Sarah Michelle Gellar’s character is a care nurse who takes a job in Tokyo at the hexed house of the three previous Japanese movies).
So foreignness can be a selling point for a remake now. Fincher safeguards the Swedishness with what is essentially a form of posh dubbing – substituting actors instead of a new audio track. But his method surely has its limits. It’s hard to imagine it working outside of a western setting: anything set in Asia or Africa would seem ridiculous, or even a bit colonial. And it hides what is, in many ways, still a traditional remake. The black-lacquered title sequence announces the new ownership, and the ascension of Stieg Larsson‘s Millennium trilogy to global media-brand status. Of course this could only be permitted to happen in Hollywood hands: this is Scandinavian crime fiction as 007 extravaganza. It’s gone respectable, in other words, and on one crucial point it pushes even further in making sure that the star of the show is palatable to her new public: Lisbeth Salander actually asks permission from Mikael Blomkvist to kill with the serial killer, and she doesn’t even get to deal the mortal blow. She is no longer Noomi Rapace’s feminist avenging angel (though Fincher’s version is truer to the book on this point than its Swedish adaptation).
The new Dragon Tattoo exists in a strange remake twilight – half-native, half-Hollywood – and that may be the compromise for the next few years. But really, we shouldn’t care whether films take this respectful route or go in for the unabashed story-heist of old. The greats, from Shakespeare to Shaw, went for the grand theft with no apologies. They knew you can’t keep a good yarn locked up. The local always has the universal buried within it; a true remake is the one able to dig that out.
• This article was amended on 23 December 2011. The credit list in the above box included people who worked on the Swedish adaptation of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. This has been corrected.
• What global box-office stories should we be writing about? How does Hollywood hawk its wares in your country? Let us know in the comments below.
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